Legislative Republicans began the new legislative session vowing to fight off tax hikes proposed by Gov. Mike Easley and find ways to improve road building. They may find some allies in that fight -- Democratic legislative leaders. The new legislative session began Tuesday with legislators focused on the budget proposal made by Easley a day earlier. But legislative leaders were already expressing skepticism about the prospects for any tax increases this year. House Speaker Joe Hackney also said that Easley's plan regarding what to do with revenue generated by a proposed cigarette tax -- hiking teacher pay by 7 percent -- wouldn't stand in the House.
Hackney said the House traditionally hasn't supported large disparities between teacher pay increases and those of other state employees. "We hope to do better for our (non-teacher) state employees, I can tell you that," Hackney said. Easley's budget would provide a 1.83 percent raise to rank-and-file state employees, along with a one-time bonus of $1,000. Hackney also said that he expected the legislature to make some progress addressing transportation needs even while awaiting more substantial recommendations from a study committee for next year.
The committee recommended on Tuesday that the legislature end a $172 million transfer from the Highway Trust Fund to the General Fund, using the money to finance a road bond issue of at least $1 billion. Republican leaders have been touting a similar proposal. "Roads matter to people who live in the real world," said House Minority Leader Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake. Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said the governor's budget plan appeared to be promoting Easley's legacy, not helping the pressing needs of North Carolina families. "In tough economic times, it is not time to raise taxes," Berger said.
Later in the day, Easley budget adviser Dan Gerlach defended the plan to members of the House and Senate appropriations committees. Gerlach noted that there are currently disparities in teacher pay and comparably experienced non-teaching state employees, and that Easley's plan would help alleviate those disparities. "We'd love to give state employees more," he said. Gerlach added that beer and wine taxes have not been raised in decades. The session got underway with brief floor meetings in the House and Senate. The Senate accepted a state flag that it had earlier given to legislative staffer and National Guard Brig. Gen. Jim Trodgen. The flag had flown over Trogden's unit in Iraq. In the House, Rep. Sandra Spaulding Hughes, D-New Hanover, was seated after her appointment to replace former Rep. Thomas Wright, who was expelled from the House prior to his criminal conviction on corruption-related charges.
(THE INSIDER, 5/14/08).